Police make over room to benefit young victimsWith minimal redecoration, a small room within the River Falls Police Department transforms from a sterile-looking interview room into a place where children can feel safer and more comfortable talking with officers.
By: Debbie Griffin, River Falls Journal
With minimal redecoration, a small room within the River Falls Police Department transforms from a sterile-looking interview room into a place where children can feel safer and more comfortable talking with officers.
Among the last grants given by the former Jim Dollohan Memorial Fund, the $1,500 given to RFPD enabled it to install recording equipment and create a different atmosphere conducive to working with kids.
And in some cases, the recorded interview can prevent kids from having to testify in court.
A 17-year veteran of RFPD and its youth services officer, Chuck Golden, investigates child abuse and sexual assault cases.
Golden says the most of the grant went to buying the recording equipment in the room.
He and fellow officer Jennifer Knutson, who advocated for a child-interview room and completed the grant application, stretched the grant dollars as far as they could.
They found a colorful, juvenile rug to put on the floor and create a “different” space than the rest of the office -- a separation from the generic carpet.
Homey wicker desk drawers contain what may look like kids’ toys but are actually tools to help the children tell their sometimes-awful stories.
A baby doll helps with demonstrations, and premade diagrams can help establish what kids mean by slang or other casual terms they use or have heard.
For example, a “mitt” might mean hand to some kids.
Two small stools that are actually ottomans sit on the floor so that an interviewer and a child can sit at the same level and see eye to eye as they talk.
Instead of painting the walls, Golden tapped into his 10-year-old son Ben’s “early” artwork; by framing a few pictures. They saved money but added some color to walls.
The officer says he had the drawings in a cabinet and although his son didn’t think they were very good, he didn’t mind them being used.
An easel in the interview room holds a big pad of paper on which kids or the officer can draw and help illustrate what they mean. It might be pictures of their pet, siblings or the layout of a room.
Golden said, “When we talk to children, we have to do it a particular way and with a particular protocol.”
He says the now-ready child-interview room helps immensely to implement that protocol.
Studies have shown that a properly situated room can not only help a child feel more comfortable, the taped interview can be admissible in court in lieu of live testimony.
Golden says part of the best-practice protocol involves asking open-ended questions and using a forensic technique called cognitive graphic interview.
Since children of all ages can be highly suggestible, care must be taken to build a rapport with them, ask the questions in a way that’s appropriate for their age and make sure they tell the truth.
The officer says the technique includes a part that can serve the same purpose as an adult “raising their right hand and swearing…” which is a process most children don’t understand anyway.
When their truth is recorded in the special room then corroborated, it gives the child good credibility.
Golden explains that at times, a kid will say something that seems farfetched, but their odd claim can become solid evidence after, for example, executing a search warrant.
He says along with the process of how to interview a child goes a place to do it where the child can feel secure and be free of distractions.
Golden said he removes all his “equipment” before interviewing a child since the gun or shiny badge can be distracting or intimidating.
He said they try to help kids feel as though they’re in a friendly place. The other interview rooms have plain walls with two adult-sized chairs and a small desk between them.
Golden said, “We don’t want this to be an intimidating atmosphere.”
Before making over the existing room, police held child interviews anywhere they could, including remote locations with a mobile camcorder. He said the room has been set up for a few months, but the cameras were recently installed.
Golden expects better outcomes using the room and its new equipment.
What may seem like minor changes to some could mean a world of difference to the child who must often tell about a traumatizing and scary experience -- and to the accused, who may or may not be guilty.
“This process is about obtaining the truth,” Golden said.